“Thank you for coming, Bringers” Oathbinder Trevor Blythe said. A tall man with short, tightly-curled black hair, the Oathbinder stood beside the room’s central holotable while the squad fell into place. “We leave in less than an hour so we’ll keep it short.”
Damen took a spot between two squadmates - a troll with blue-green skin and another a human. They stood before the briefing room’s central holotable: a waist-high, matte black cube of glass, metal and circuitry. A handful of straight-backed chairs faced the holotable in a loose semi-circle but they remained empty as those gathered in the room chose to stand.
Oathbinder Blythe gestured to the green-eyed woman who stood at the holotable’s control console. Stella dun Lopen was the base’s lead technical specialist. Smart and highly focused, the Lightbringers relied on Stella’s expertise to keep their operations running smoothly. At Blythe’s signal she tapped the controls and a shimmer of light appeared above the holotable's flat, non-reflective surface. The shimmer collapsed into a central point then expanded outwards into a crystal clear image: the three-dimensional, full colour replica of a small rural community and surroundings viewed from above.
“Early this morning we received an emergency call from the barony of Durant,” Blythe said as the hologram rotated in space. “Our mission is search and destroy and the incursion level . . . is Indigo.”
“Ospios wept,” Damen cursed at the news and he wasn’t alone in his shock. Except for Stella and Blythe’s new second-in-command, there were expressions of surprise all around.
Blythe gazed about the room intently. “The town remains untouched and the evacuation is underway. By the grace of the Ancestors we will keep those civilians safe.” He formed a closed fist with his right hand and struck his left palm - there was no allowance for failure in his tone.
The Oathbinder nodded to Stella, who manipulated her console to transform the hologram into a monochromatic, wireframe model of a twin-turbine helicopter. “Transport-1 will take us to Durant,” Blythe continued. “When we reach the designated landing zone Brother Hitema will make the jump and do his thing.”
The display changed to satellite imagery of an open field, playground and baseball diamond. Blythe glanced away from the hologram to meet Damen’s eye. “Better you than me, Brother,” he remarked to the amusement of the rest of the squad.
“No problem, Brother,” Damen shrugged nonchalantly.
Blythe quirked a smile. “Once our druid’s confirmed it’s clear, Transport-1 will set down and the rest of the squad will disembark. It will then divert to a local airfield and remain on standby.”
Blythe turned to Stella with a nod. “Sister dun Lopen.”
“Thank you, Oathbinder Trevor Blythe,” Stella said respectfully. Her voice was soft but deliberate and she used Blythe’s full title in adherence with her ingrained Nurdelese sense of formality.
Stella touched her console and the projection changed to a graphical chart titled ‘Incursion Threat Levels’. There were four multi-coloured bars, each labelled with the name of their colour. The lowest bar was white and the one above it yellow. The third bar, a rich purple labelled ‘Indigo’, blinked repeatedly. The topmost bar was solid black.
“With the threat level raised to Indigo, Grand Chapter Command granted permission to launch an armed drone.” The chart was replaced by the wireframe model of U.A.V. Titled ‘Eclipse Transport AD-2 Spitfire’, the schematic had technical specifications highlighted throughout. “A Spitfire is already enroute and is to begin aerial reconnaissance in search of terrain corrupted by blight. The Spitfire is also to provide air support during the time you remain above ground.”
She turned to Blythe and bowed respectfully. “Oathbinder Trevor Blythe.”
“Thank you, Sister dun Lopen,” Blythe returned a nod, then addressed the squad. “Alright time to suit up, Bringers! Our gear’s prepped and waiting in the Armoury.” He looked around the room and made direct eye contact with everyone in the six-man squad. Damen’s spine straightened reflexively in anticipation of the words to come and his squadmates shifted as they did the same.
“What is the Oath?” The Oathbinder asked solemnly.
“In the darkest Night, I am the Light,” Damen replied. He was echoed by the others in the room including Stella dun Lopen - just as proud to be a Lightbringer although her skills best served the Order off the battlefield.
“Bring forth the Light,” Blythe concluded.
With the short ritual complete, the squad moved to disperse. Blythe remained behind and watched them leave while Stella quickly moved to the far end of the briefing room. She activated a computer terminal set against the back wall and leaned over the screen intently.
Damen wanted to speak with Stella before he left, but she didn't seem in a hurry to exit the room so he decided to talk to the Oathbinder first. Damen moved around the side of the holotable and Blythe turned to face him. They exchanged a warrior’s greeting: right arms extended then clasped together firmly, forearm to forearm.
“It’s not too late for a parachute, Old Man” Blythe said as they parted. “I’m sure Stella can scrounge one up for you.”
‘Brother’ and ‘Sister' were the standard form of address between Lightbringers of all ranks but jocular nicknames between squad members were common. As Damen and Blythe’s friendship had developed over the years they’d privately fallen into using playful insults between themselves.
Damen snorted dismissively. “I’ll show you where you can stuff your parachute, Shorty,” he growled and Blythe grinned. Before Damen had joined his squad, Blythe had taken some small pleasure in being the tallest human on base - an honour which Damen had stolen from him. Damen topped Blythe by a few centimeters and was several kilograms heavier, so he regularly reminded the Oathbinder of his ‘shortcomings’.
“It’s just that you’re getting up there in years,” Blythe mused as he checked Damen’s hair. “I think I see a few greys, could be time to start using some of that good old druid magic to slow your aging.”
“Very funny, Shorty. Care to wager if you’ll beat this ‘old man’s’ killcount this mission? Loser buys rounds for the whole squad.”
“You're on,” Blythe quirked a smile and they clasped forearms once more. He pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the door behind him. “Time enough for gabbing later, let’s get a move on.”
Damen glanced past Blythe to where Stella still stood at the computer. “I wanted to give Stella a proper goodbye, I’ll catch up in a minute.”
Blythe’s eyebrows rose. “‘Proper goodbye’?” he asked skeptically. “How positively . . . domestic of you.”
Damen scowled and Blythe raised his hands defensively. “Not my business - as long as this thing between you two doesn't become my business.” Oathbinder Blythe held Damen’s gaze with his until Damen nodded, then Blythe relented with a smile. “Whatever you're up to make it quick - if you miss our ride it’s a long run to catch up.” He paused briefly. “Come to think of it, that sounds like proper druid training,” Blythe said in a thoughtful tone.
“Yeah, whatever,” Damen rolled his eyes. “I’ll see you in the Armoury.” Blythe clapped his shoulder then moved towards the exit.
When the Oathbinder had left, Damen returned his attention to Stella. A mischievous smile appeared on his face as an idea occurred to him. Stella had her back to the room, completely absorbed in whatever she was studying on the display. She didn’t even notice his approach until he’d wrapped his arms around her waist from behind. Damen easily swept the slender woman off her feet in a tight hug and laughed as she let loose an undignified squawk. He lifted her up to where he could peck a quick kiss on her cheek then gently set her back to the ground.
“Damen Hitema,” Stella huffed, exasperation in her voice. She turned to face him with a frown on her face but struggled to prevent it turning into a smile. “You are an uncouth, childish, son of a dragon matriarch!” Despite her harsh words, the significantly smaller woman reached up to place her hands behind Damen’s neck. She pulled his head down to where she could reach, then brushed his lips lightly with hers.
Damen wasn’t content with such a dainty offering though. He reached for Stella’s waist to pull her close and pressed his lips to hers with vigor. She tensed in surprise at his unexpected move but then relaxed as their kiss deepened. Eventually, Damen’s sense of duty clamored to the forefront of his mind. With a reluctance even he found surprising, he released her waist and moved to pull back.
Stella unclasped her hands from behind his neck. “I do not know where that came from Damen Hitema but neither of us have much time remaining to prepare.” She seemed distracted as she spoke; her hand drifted to her mouth and her fingers drifted to touch her lips seemingly of their own accord.
Damen chuckled and Stella snatched her fingers away from her lips as if burned. “You wipe that self-satisfied smirk off your face, Damen Hitema,” she admonished him primly. “I admit your kiss was . . . nice, but we have wasted enough time.”
“So eager to see me go,” Damen teased. “You didn’t really think I could leave without saying goodbye, did you Stella?”
Stella looked at him quizzically. “No . . . I did not expect you to say goodbye. Yet I am pleased that you did.” Stella’s green eyes searched Damen’s face. “I know not what this is between us, Damen Hitema. We were to agree to remain friends and colleagues before we were to enter our . . . arrangement.”
“True enough,” Damen conceded reluctantly. His head agreed but perhaps his heart wasn’t so sure anymore.
Unwilling to examine his feelings too closely at the best of times, let alone with a mission pending, Damen opted to retreat. “Anyway, I really just wanted to congratulate you on the briefing. You only slipped on the grammatical tenses a few times and I couldn’t tell you were nervous at all.”
“Thanks to you,” Stella said with a genuine smile. “You are a surprisingly patient coach.”
Damen shrugged. “What can I say, I’ve got hidden depths.” He started to leave but then turned back as if he’d suddenly remembered something important. “Oh and don’t worry your pretty little head - I’ll take good care of old Angry Betty for you.”
Stella’s smile vanished but she refused to rise to the bait. Instead, she sniffed loudly and deliberately turned back to her station.
With a self-satisfied smirk on his face, Damen left the briefing room. In the corridor outside he encountered a scene of organized chaos as the base’s support personnel bustled about. Equipment needed to be moved and urgent tasks completed in preparation for the squad’s departure.
A quick look around revealed none of the other members of Damen’s squad were still in sight. “Ospios wept,” he muttered and ignored the disapproving frown of a passing technician. “I really am late.”
With the unthinking ease of something performed so often it’s become second-nature, Damen focused inwards and centered himself to tap into his life force. To normal humans and trolls, ‘life force’ - or ‘qi’ as it was called in the Mashalan tradition - was an abstract concept used to promote healthy self-awareness and inner harmony. For druids like Damen, life force was an invisible but nonetheless very real resource within their bodies which could be drawn upon to accomplish supernatural feats.
From a standstill, Damen sprang into a seemingly reckless sprint as his now magically augmented reflexes allowed him to dash past startled personnel at breakneck speed. He proceeded without incident until he rounded a final corner then halted at a solid metal door. He pressed his hand against the palm lock beside it. The screen switched from red to green with a beep and the heavy door slid sideways into the wall with a rumble.
Damen stepped through a short passage into a narrow room that stretched sideways in both directions from where he stood. The walls closest to the entrance held rows of cubbyholes. Several were closed but Damen quickly stripped down to undershorts and dog tags then piled his clothes inside an open one. He then turned to face the wall across from the entrance where there were three open doorways spaced equal distances apart. Damen stepped through the nearest one into an elevator-sized chamber whose walls, ceiling and floor were composed of softly glowing, white, hexagonal tiles. Four of the tiles were red instead of white: two on the floor and two at shoulder height on opposite walls. As the chamber’s systems detected his presence a buzzer sounded followed by an electronically generated voice.
“Step on the marked tiles and place your hands where indicated,” the voice instructed tonelessly.
Damen had already assumed the proper stance before the voice finished and as his limbs made contact with the tiles they became green. When all four had changed, a panel covered with the same luminescent hexagons as the the rest of chamber slid down from the ceiling and sealed the doorway.
“Prepare for decontamination protocol,” the voice stated and Damen took a breath then closed his eyes and mouth tightly. “Decon protocol in three, two, one - initiating.” Bright light bathed Damen’s body in radiant heat and tingly, antiseptic-smelling mist sprayed onto every part of his body. The light became bright enough for Damen to see spots inside his eyelids and the heat was sweltering. Then the light dimmed back to its previous level and the heat reduced with it.
“Decontamination protocol complete,” the voice stated and Damen released his breath then opened his eyes. The buzzer sounded once more and the automated voice spoke. “Prepare for vivification protocol,” it began. Change rapidly spread through the chamber as the voice counted down. Tiles shifted colours: some remained white, others morphed to gold or green. Intricate patterns emerged; systematic designs dictated by the precise synergies of runic magic. “Vivification protocol in three, two, one - initiating.”
Damen’s back arched as euphoria suffused him and every fibre of his being flushed with vitality. The sensations were nearly indescribable. It was like waking up to a gorgeously sunny morning, instantly alert and full of energy. Or like climbing the tallest mountain peak to see half of Torvus spread out below while taking deep lungfuls of the purest air on the planet. It was like challenging a dragon to a wrestling match - and winning.
Fortunately - or perhaps unfortunately - the sensations were brief. The energies used by the vivification chamber altered biochemical balances within the body. Too much and the magical infusion could cause more harm than good - permanent impairment of the body’s normal functions or even death in extreme cases of repeated abuse.
“Vivification protocol complete.” The automated voice spoke a final time and the tiles in the chamber reverted back to their original state. As they did, the euphoria caused by the chamber’s magic abruptly cut off and Damen shuddered through the rapid onset of physical withdrawal.
A buzzer sounded. The wall before Damen revealed itself to be a panel similar to the one which had sealed the doorway behind him as it rose soundlessly up into the ceiling. On shaky legs, Damen exited the chamber into the Armoury proper.
The Lightbringer’s Armoury was a large, hangar-like room which extended outwards from the vivification chambers. Oathbinder Blythe and Damen’s other squadmates moved throughout the room, though unlike him they were all dressed in white, form-fitting body armour.
Most of the Armoury was occupied by racks of enchanted and technological armaments. Weaponry ranged from enchanted swords with shining runes inscribed along the length of their blades, to high-powered firearms with electronic scopes. Modern composite body armour hung beside sturdy, medieval-style shields. In its centuries-long history the Order of Lightbringers had made use of nearly every weapon ever conceived to fulfill its mandate: defend the innocent and destroy their enemies.
Tall, individually labelled lockers stood to either side of the vivification chambers’ exits. Damen approached his and removed the uniform inside then started to put it on. The white, form-fitting body armour was crafted from a toughened fabric developed by the Order to protect against the dark magics used by their enemies. Once Damen had sealed his suit he moved to join the others at the weapon racks. He greeted the squad’s heavy weapon gunner as he passed, the same troll he’d stood beside in the briefing. The troll was even taller and more heavily muscled than Damen and a six-barrelled, rotary machine gun rested on the ground beside him. The heavy weapon was large enough for an average human to require a tripod mount to use it, but Damen had seen the gunner pick it up one-handed.
Damen ignored the rifles, grenades and other technological weaponry. Instead he went directly to one highly unique sword which seemed more a work of art than a weapon. Unlike the other weapons in the Armoury which were freely available to all, it was off to the side in a standalone case, secured behind thick glass and with electronic locks. Formed entirely from one piece of hardened, ruby-red crystal, the ancient bloodsword refracted the room’s light into complex motifs of light and shadow.
“I can’t believe we actually let you use that,” Oathbinder Blythe commented from the next row. He collected magazines of ammunition for the assault rifle slung on his shoulder and placed them in a bandolier.
Damen pressed a thumb against a fingerprint reader then keyed a long, numeric code into the keypad pad. A series of whirrs and clicks sounded within the case’s pedestal, then the cover lifted with a hiss of hydraulic fluid. He reached inside and stroked his fingers along the hilt. The crystal felt warm to his touch and to Damen’s magically attuned senses it vibrated with barely chained potential.
“Angry Betty here isn’t meant for some dusty museum,” Damen said fondly. A tiny red light pulsed within the core of the artefact beneath his fingers in what he chose to interpret as agreement. “She belongs in combat - that’s a true tribute to her legacy.”
Blythe winced at Damen’s nickname for the legendary weapon. He finished filling up his bandolier then walked around the end of his row. “I realize that ‘Boetiadre's Vengeful Wrath, Last Blade of the Red Sisters’ is quite a mouthful for the linguistically challenged - but Angry Betty? You don’t call it that to Stella, do you?”
Damen shrugged. “Stella hasn't expressed any complaints about the versatility of my tongue,” he said and Blythe’s eyes twinkled with humour. “Now that you mention it, she might have been a tad upset the first time I called the old girl that.”
Blythe sighed. “I’m sure she grew up hearing more stories about this sword and the Anica dun Lopen than you or I ever knew existed. Considering she’s a descendent of the Order’s most revered founding member, I’d think ‘upset’ must be putting it mildly.”
Damen widened his eyes as if the thought had never occurred to him. “You know, you could be onto something.” Blythe shook his head in defeat.
Damen picked the bloodsword up out of its case then held it vertically in a two-handed grip on the pommel, tip just above the ground. Once again he tapped into his life force but instead of focusing inwards, the druid turned his mystic senses to the energies contained within Angry Betty.
The chained potentialities Damen had sensed earlier expanded a hundredfold within his consciousness in eager response to his silent summons. Blythe looked on while Damen triggered one of Angry Betty’s abilities. The bloodsword ignited with a fierce crimson radiance then morphed before their eyes to become less crystalline and more fluid. At Damen’s mental direction, Angry Betty rippled like a pool of viscous liquid then flowed up along its own length to cover his arms in a shining red layer, all the way from hands to shoulder. Within moments the glowing, liquefied crystal thinned until it disappeared, magically absorbed into Damen’s own body through clothing and skin without a trace.
Damen relaxed his concentration and brushed his empty hands together then lowered his arms to his sides.
“Neat trick,” Blythe said enviously. “Figure there’s any way I can do that with all this, Old Man?” He shrugged his shoulders to draw attention to his bandolier and the strap of his assault rifle.
Damen spread his hands, palms out before him. “Sorry, Shorty - sometimes older really is just better.”
The pair of Lightbringers exchanged grins then moved on to the equipment shelves to retrieve additional gear, including earbuds and wristband radios. Damen’s preparations were complete but Blythe still had work to do. The Oathbinder and his second-in-command inspected the squad as it assembled in front of the large hangar-like doors at the far end of the Armoury. When everyone was ready to his complete satisfaction, Blythe pulled a metal lever on the wall beside the doors. With a rattle of machinery, the doors drew apart to reveal a sunlit, tarmac field and a small cluster of low, brick buildings.
The large twin-turbine helicopter which had been showcased in the briefing sat on the helipad a short distance from the Armoury. Its rotors idled slowly until the pilot saw the hangar doors open. She increased power to the engine and the rotors picked up speed with a whine from the turbines.
Blythe hefted his assault rifle and waved the Lightbringers forward. “Lock-n-load, Bringers,” he said. “Let’s go kill some demons.”
Damen Hitema and the others followed the Oathbinder to the waiting aircraft.